NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Local News

August 30, 2013

Mammoth mystery

Long Island controversy spills over to Plum Island

A long-forgotten discovery of ancient bones on Plum Island has swirled into a controversy that is spurring environmentalists to action, threatening to disrupt a major redevelopment proposal and drawing reams of media attention.

If the story doesn’t sound familiar to local Plum Islanders, there’s a good reason: It’s a case of mistaken identity gone badly amok.

The controversy is playing out on another Plum Island, located off New York’s Long Island. But our local Plum Island, and its mysterious stash of bones, has become an unwitting player in the controversy. It’s a strange tale that involves a yellowed 1879 newspaper clipping, a woolly mammoth, an intense dispute between the federal government and environmentalists, and a small historical society that managed to shine a light on the truth.

“This has really taken on a life of its own,” said Geoffrey Fleming, director of the Southold Historical Society on Long Island, N.Y.

That other Plum Island — a 3-mile-long, pork-chop shaped piece of land located near the outermost tip of Long Island — has been owned by the U.S. government for about a century. For the past 60 years it has been home to an animal disease research center. In 2008, Congress voted to close the center and relocate it to Kansas and sell the island to a private developer.

The island sale has sparked enormous reaction, and that’s where the 1879 newspaper clipping and our local Plum Island fit into the story.

In anticipation of the sale to a private developer, the federal government has been conducting an extensive report on the island, studying whether the years of animal testing has left behind contamination.

According to The Southampton Press, the leader of a group opposed to the island’s sale came across a July 1879 news item from the long-since shuttered newspaper The Long Islander. It reported on the discovery of a woolly mammoth-like skull and bones on “Plum Island.” Mammoths, close relatives of elephants, went extinct about 10,000 years ago.

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